Romantic Mystery Novel
a whodunit by Barbara W. Klaser
|There's a little bit of sleuth in everyone....
Shadows Fall is a romantic mystery set in an old, closed mountain resort, in the Sierra Nevada of California.
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The ancient incense cedar that still stood sentinel over the cemetery was a giant with lace-like foliage, a heavily buttressed trunk, and cinnamon colored bark scarred by time. Its trunk was five feet thick and generously dotted with woodpecker holes, some filled with acorns from neighboring oaks. The top of the tree was dead, the victim of a lightning strike. Thick newer branches stuck out at right angles to the trunk, and shot upward to form a graceful canopy of flat green fronds. The tree grew several feet from the farthest of the graves, on the slope of the hill that rose gently to the west beyond the burial place.
Beth carried three white rosebuds from her car. She lay the first on her father's grave and the second on the new mound of Jay Handley's. She sat on the ground beside Jay's grave, recalling the last few conversations she'd had with him, fifteen years ago. Than she got up and searched for Ollie Stevens' grave and placed the third rosebud on it.
She would've left then, but she suddenly remembered too clearly the sight of the boy lying dead in the moonlit clearing. She pulled a tissue out of her jacket pocket, dried her eyes, turned back toward the parking lot and stopped. Peter's camper was parked beside her car, partially obscuring it from view. She glanced around, then turned full circle, searching for him among the headstones and the trees. She spotted him leaning against the trunk of the old cedar, with his head back, his arms folded across his chest and his eyes focused upward. Beth watched him until he looked at her and waved. Taking that for an invitation, she climbed the slight incline.
He wore faded blue jeans, and a T-shirt under the familiar plaid shirt, which was unbuttoned, with the sleeves rolled up. Beth wondered if he ever felt the cold.
"Roses," he said when she stood beside him. "Your mother's aren't blooming yet. Did you get those in town?"
"No, I robbed the vase in the dining room. That's part of my agreement with Mom. I don't have to go into town while I'm here."
"With Holly and Vicky." Beth shrugged. She turned and placed a hand on the bark of the big tree. "When I was a girl, I thought this tree was hallowed, sacrosanct, what God would be if He were a tree." She turned and leaned against the tree to watch him, basking in his smile. "What are you doing here?"
The smile became a pained expression. "You keep asking me that."
"I mean here by this tree, right now."
"Oh." He looked away.
"If you prefer to be alone, I can leave. I was about to."
"I'd like you to stay." He met her gaze again.
"Do you have an office in town, Peter?"
"I don't think most city doctors would call it an office. It's the old barbershop." He gestured toward his truck. "There's also my portable office, and I work three days a week at the hospital in McGuffey. I came here on vacation, during the summer. I camped and fished until the weather turned; then I talked your mother into renting me the cabin for the winter." He shot her a quick glance. "I've been looking around for more space, where I can have a staff. Suitable properties are scarce."
"I'm surprised you haven't persuaded my mother to lease you my father's clinic, at the Lodge."
He was shaking his head. "I've discussed it with her. She doesn't want to."
After a moment's silence, she said, "I'm having trouble with my decision to only stay four weeks." Beth stole a glance at those blue eyes.
"Sounds like we have the same problem."
"Not exactly." Hers had no solution.
He straightened, moved away from the tree and stood facing her. "The murder?"
"What else is there? It's all people here think about when they see me."
"There's lots else, Beth. What do you have, where you're living now?"
She sighed. "A partnership in a successful business, a little girl who happily divides her time between her father's house and mine, a house in a quiet neighborhood, and financial security. The downside is that my work is suffering because I'm not sure whether it's really what I should be doing with my life, my life is suffering because I feel burned out, and I've always disliked living in the city."
"Whereas here you have...?"
"Here I have a lot of people who don't want me around; a reputation as a murderer and, apparently, a loose woman; a few people who do want me. And yet, here I feel whole, natural. I just can't stay." She fell silent, depressed again.
"I'm divided between city and country," Peter said, "between living near family and fishing from my back porch. Between a polluted environment and a pristine one, between a stressful position on a hospital staff where I could stay busy earning a considerable income, and a small family practice that may be satisfying but may not pay the rent. Between memories, and possibilities.
"Let's vote," he said. "If you want Beth to stay, raise your hand." He raised his. So did she. He lifted his eyebrows. "It's unanimous."
She laughed. "If you want Peter to stay, raise your hand." The result was the same. "We both knew what we wanted all along." She noticed him watching her hands, and she fell silent, self-conscious. She pushed away from the tree. "I have to go. See you at dinner."
She stopped. She didn't want to leave. But he was about to get serious. She'd seen it in his eyes, and her instinct was to run.
"There's something I've wanted to ask ever since I met you." He caught one of her hands in his, frowned at it with a caution approaching tenderness. Then he rubbed his thumb across the lengthwise scars on her wrist. "Why did you do this?" He looked into her eyes.
Beth felt frozen to the spot, her gaze locked with his.
Why? She worked in a business where she used her hands, shook hands with people, gave presentations, handled fabric in the presence of employees, vendors and customers. Dozens of people saw her hands every day. She saw them notice, then steal the first opportunity to look more closely. She recalled Dan tracing the scars on one wrist with his fingertip one night when he thought she slept, and she recalled the expression on his face when he'd looked up to find her watching him and she'd pulled her hand away.
"No one's ever asked," she said.
Peter released her hand and dropped with ease onto the ground, patted the earth beside him, then draped his long arms over his raised knees and waited, peering up at her.
She leaned against the tree, afraid to sit. She realized letting go of the restraints that contained her memories was the only way to give an answer that would satisfy him. He'd see through anything else.
"Jack would call it one of my flirtations with death. If I'd succeeded, I would've been buried here." She slid ungracefully to the ground and looked over the graves.
"It was the night after Owen Stevens testified that he saw me shoot his brother. I knew as soon as the words were out of his mouth that I'd be convicted. I could see it in the jury's and judge's eyes, even in my attorney's. None of them would look at me.
"I felt abandoned, hopeless, and desperate to put an end to my fear of being locked in a small dark cell somewhere."
She glanced at Peter. The look in his eyes pushed the feelings back into the past for a few seconds.
"They'd been watching me since I was first arrested, but I never considered suicide before that day. The impulse was sudden, and the opportunity arose immediately, because of a near riot outside the jail. I took that as a sign it was meant somehow.
Beth stopped, sweating. A cold, familiar knot tightened in her stomach. She got up, moved several feet away into the brush, and vomited. When the spasms receded, they both sat in silence beside the tree, while she continued to wrestle with the memory of the damage she'd inflicted on herself.
"A persistent young doctor patched me up, and I hated him for it," she said eventually. "I pleaded for two days for them to let me die.
"Then Jay Handley came and sat with me, and talked. He repeated stories I'd heard dozens of times over the years, and he reminded me of things Gabriel, Kelly and I had done as kids. He talked about his faith. He was certain that everything happens for a reason, that there would be a day in the future when I would understand why all this was happening to me."
She met Peter's solemn gaze. "Jay saved my life. He made me want to live again. He made me believe I could get through whatever happened, that I possessed the strength I needed to survive. I wish I'd been able to thank him properly while he was alive." She sniffed and brushed her wet cheeks.
"And here you were today, crying for the dead boy."
She looked at her hands and spoke slowly. "He had a father and a twin brother who loved him."
"That's true, they were victims too. But I know something about grief. It's a deep cut and leaves a scar, but it ceases to hurt so acutely or so often, given time. Injustice, hatred, and fear, when they're perpetuated the way they have been against you, continue to destroy.
"My God, Beth, when I see who you are today in spite of all that, I have to admire and respect you. You're the kind of person who insists on being terrific at whatever you undertake. You have a bearing, a presence that makes people take notice. You're a loving mother with an adorable, happy, healthy child. I'm stunned by what you've done with your life. All that, and you haven't even healed yet."
"Healed?" She said in a small voice. "What makes you think I haven't?"
"A little girl who says you're a workaholic, who thinks you never used to sleep before you had pneumonia. She lives with you. She knows you better than anyone."
"Children need more sleep than adults. She's asleep when I go to bed and she's still asleep when I get up in the morning."
"I'll bet you always argue this way when you know you're wrong."
"I've always been a light sleeper. Any little noise wakens me, and with Abby, I'm always listening for her."
"Why don't you just give in for once?"
She shot him a sharp glance. His eyes, bluer now as the sun sank toward the west, were tightly focused on hers. "Sometimes I have nightmares," she admitted. She had to look away. "Sometimes I don't sleep at all."
"What haunts you?"
"It can't be the murder. You said you went out that night because you couldn't sleep. What memories?"
"Just ... memories. They overshadow everything sometimes. If I work hard, if I stay busy, I can keep them pushed into the background."
"You haven't healed."
"Do you have to act like a doctor right now?"
He was silent for a moment, and then he spoke in a low tone. He sounded tired. "I'm sorry. I don't want to be your doctor. I want to be your friend. More than that, if possible. I care about your well being, your happiness. When something you did fifteen years ago is so immediate, so fresh and exposed a wound today that just talking about it makes you lose your lunch, it's too present and too painful for you to say you've healed. It still eats at you."
She closed her eyes and sighed, then heard him move. He stood in front of her, offering a hand up. They walked to the parking lot together. "You knew you'd want to stay," he said.
"Will you take me on a tour of your favorite places? I'll drive. Bring Abby."
He thought. "Tentatively, Tuesday. I may get a call and have to cancel."
She smiled. "I'll pack a lunch on Tuesday morning, and if you don't show, Abby and I will take a walk around the lake and eat ourselves silly.
"Peter." She stopped him with a hand on his arm as he was about to get into his truck. "The note Leigh showed us today. Do you think it can help prove I didn't kill Ollie?"
He took a moment to answer. "It convinces Leigh. That's something."
She stepped back. "It doesn't convince you?"
Peter met her gaze. "You convinced me a long time ago."
The shower revived Beth slowly. She stood under it longer than she needed to. She wanted the fine spray to wash away the clamor of thoughts, to relax muscles tensed by reliving the past. So much had happened in two days, she wasn't feeling the least bit rested. Her mind reeled.
She turned off the tap, squeezed water out of her hair, wrapped it in a towel and reached for another. She dried off, savoring the plush texture of the thick towel. Then she stepped out of the shower, and stopped dead still, gaping at the closed bathroom door. She'd left it open.
She rushed over and turned the doorknob, and it fell off in her hand. She bit her lip. A scream rose in her throat.
It couldn't really be closed. She stared at the doorknob in her hand. Her heart beat furiously.
"Abby." It came out broken and ended in a sob. "Abby!" She called three or four times before she heard a faint reply. "Abby?"
"Abby, honey, open the door for me." Her breath felt constricted. Her heart pounded.
The latch rattled. "I can't. This thing fell off."
"Abby, go find Grandma. Tell her my bathroom door is stuck."
"Why is it stuck?"
"I don't know, honey. Tell Grandma, and stay with her. Hurry!"
Abby's footsteps faded away. Beth took a deep breath, and still felt she couldn't get enough air. She was sweating and shivering at the same time. Her heart hammered.
She stepped back into the shower and struggled with the window, her fingers slipping and fumbling in panic. It was stuck as fast as the door.
She wrapped a towel securely around her and attempted to busy her mind with something besides the shut door. It's a big bathroom, she observed. Twice as big as her bathroom in the house she shared with Abby. But the doorknob had never fallen off that door, and the door had never closed by itself.
Deep inside her, the frightened little girl from her nightmares screamed. If those screams broke through to the adult Beth, she would lose control.
She unwrapped her hair and combed it with a shaking hand, looking at the frightened blur of her face in the steamed up mirror.
"Beth?" It was Matt, jiggling the latch.
"Yes!" She flew to the door. "Matt, can you open it?" Her voice broke up in sobs of relief.
"I'm working on it. Take it easy."
"Where's Abby?" She secured the towel around her again.
"Downstairs with Mom. I told her to stay there."
The door opened and he stood aside. Beth ran across the bedroom before she remembered her robe and hurried back for it. She went into Abby's room to put it on, then paced across the carpeted floor several times, to keep moving until her panic subsided. She returned to her room. Matt cast a glance at her, and she looked more closely at what he was doing. He was putting the doorknob back on.
"No! Take it off, Matt. Please, remove the whole thing. The latch. Everything." Her words came out as a clipped, quivering demand.
He looked at her for a few seconds, eyes steady. "That'll just leave a hole in the door, and no way to keep it closed."
"I don't want to close it. I never close it. You can take it off at the hinges if you like." She dropped onto the sofa near the window to wait, wrapped her robe around her legs and drew her knees up. She held her hands against her face, attempting to think calming thoughts. A minute later, she was still shaking.
"Beth." Matt stood beside her holding the canvas tool bag. "It won't latch now. You can't get stuck in there again." She thanked him. "Can I get you something? A glass of water? Beer? Jack's got some killer single malt Scotch whisky, and Mom has brandy."
She pushed her hair back and peered up at him. "A cup of Mom's chamomile tea might help."
"Ah, the herbal approach. I'll bring you some." He started to go.
"Matt, the bathroom window is stuck too. Can you open that?"
"Sure. Be right back."
He left the tool bag and fetched her tea. When he returned to the bathroom, Beth heard squeaking, creaking noises, and finally the smooth sliding of the sash. A cold evening breeze blew through the room, caressing her cheek. She gripped her tea mug in both hands.
Matt closed the window and came out. "All done." His voice sounded rough.
She thanked him again, this time more profusely, and he stood there holding a claw hammer and something else that jingled in his hand. "What is it?" She sat up straight.
He showed her what he held: shiny nails, bent and mangled from being removed. "It was nailed shut."
Peter weighed a gold Rolex watch in one hand while he spoke to his brother on the phone. He'd called to thank Tim for the gift and to tell him it was far too extravagant.
"The jeweler's a client," Tim said. "You'll need to dress better if you take that job in Sacramento."
"Tim, I'm not interested—"
"You could buy your own cabin and fish on your days off and vacations. How often do you think opportunities like this will come along as you get older? Neither Claire nor Emery would want you to continue grieving this way. Stop chasing dust devils—"
Peter interrupted to say he had to leave for the Lodge.
"What's so important about Sunday dinner at that place?"
Going into that would only fuel Tim's argument. Peter had explained, years ago, why he was here. He wished he'd never told Tim about Beth.
It had been one of their men's nights, Peter and his brother playing chess in Peter's living room.
"I love Emery and my girls being so young." Tim took a swig of his beer. "I hope they never grow up."
"You're a sentimental guy," Peter observed.
"Sure, I'm as sentimental as the next guy. I come here so I can leave Morgan home with the girls."
"You're the only person I can say that to who will understand," Tim went on. "I love her, but I have to get away one night a week or I'll go bananas."
Peter shrugged. "I didn't marry her. Make your move and change the subject."
Tim moved his knight. "I'm supposed to let you know the baby-sitting offer still holds. Might I suggest Emery sleep over?" Tim said with a devilish grin. "Are you seeing anyone? See, there's this woman at the bank—"
Peter groaned. "Tim, don't let your wife fix me up. I'm begging you."
"Misery loves company." Tim leaned back with a challenge in his eyes.
"Tell her I'm seeing someone."
"I need a name and an occupation. Morgan likes career women."
"A ... super model named Veronica."
Tim raised his eyebrows, then laughed. "How serious is it?"
"It's building slowly. She travels a lot."
Tim wasn't smiling anymore. "Seriously, Peter. In a fair universe, I'm the one who'd be widowed."
"That's a hell of a thing to say."
"Morgan had to practically blackmail me into marriage. You're a natural husband and dad."
"I'm not going to marry again just so I'll have someone to eat my corn flakes with."
"But you see dozens of women every day. Isn't there anyone who interests you enough to ask her out?"
"Yes, and I do. We have coffee or lunch, maybe dinner and a movie. The feeling never seems to stick. There's only been one person I really—"
"Claire's dead, Peter. It's been five years. You're thirty-three."
"I know. There's only one person besides Claire I've ever had those kinds of feelings about."
"Oh, besides Claire. Who?"
Peter shook his head. "She was a patient, when I was a resident. She had no family nearby. We talked."
"You felt sorry for her?"
"No. I visited her, the way you visit a friend in the hospital."
"What was her name?"
"Elizabeth Gray," Peter said with an immediacy that surprised even him. He frowned at the chessboard. "Beth. She recited poetry."
"You should look her up." Tim picked up his beer. "Call her."
Peter shook his head. "You don't understand. She wasn't interested in me that way, Tim."
"No, of course not. She threw you out of her room, right?"
"She was lonely." Peter met his brother's gaze, wondering if Tim would understand.
Tim's smile slid into a lopsided grin. He patted Peter's arm. "You weren't this serious until you started talking about her. The worst she'll do is tell you to get lost."
Peter frowned at his beer. It had been five years. Was she still in prison, or had she been paroled? He tried to recall everything she'd said about where she was from. The lake. Would she return there when she was free? Or would she go looking for that entry level job she'd been so worried about?
On Father's Day, Morgan and the kids had taken Tim and Peter to breakfast at a restaurant called Birdie's. The place sold fresh-baked muffins and every item on the menu had a bird's name. Afterward, Peter waited outside with Morgan and her girls for Tim, who'd made a last-minute stop in the restroom, and for ten-year-old Emery, who had some coins he wanted to blow next door at a vending machine that dispensed squiggly creatures he deemed perfect for scaring the girls. Claudia and April were onto him, and conspiring to scream.
Peter stood on the broad sidewalk near a bricked courtyard, under the hot Pasadena sun. Somewhere beyond the continuous chatter produced by Morgan and her daughters, he heard familiar, musical laughter.
The sound emptied Peter's mind of all else, leaving him with a blinding hunger. He cast about, hoping to see Beth Gray standing behind him.
He scanned the people waiting in line to get into the restaurant. He looked up and down the sidewalk, listened to the drone of traffic moving by, the roar and wheeze of a bus approaching from the next block.
"What is it, Peter?" Morgan said. "You look as if you suddenly don't know where you are."
He heard the laughter again, then her voice, and he turned just as she came through a shaded doorway and started up the sidewalk. Walking, with no limp, but a graceful sway of her hips. Her heels clicked past him on the sidewalk. Peter took a step toward her.
Emery barreled into him. "Dad, look what I got!"
"Just a minute, son." He kept going.
"But Dad." Emery dragged at his arm.
Beth turned around and Peter thought she'd seen him. As Emery let go of his arm, Beth waved a hand in the air, then turned and ran. She reached the corner as a bus squealed to a stop. She dug her hand into one of her bags, searching, while passengers alighted.
Claudia and April erupted into screams behind Peter, then into giggles. Beth looked in their direction. Then she bounded up the steps into the bus. It moved away.
Morgan placed her hand on Peter's arm. "I'm relieved to see you taking an interest in women, but you can't just follow them home."
"Follow who home?" Tim said behind them.
"Peter's girl watching," Morgan said.
Peter turned and walked into the shop he'd seen Beth emerge from.
"Where are you going, Dad?" Emery called after him.
"You should've seen her, Daddy," Claudia told Tim. "She's absolutely stunning!" April called to her, and Claudia ran the other way.
Inside the shop, Peter approached the woman at the counter. "The young woman who just left here, with dark curly hair," he said. "Her name is Beth Gray."
"Your Beth Gray?" Tim said behind him.
The woman stared at Tim, then Peter. "I know who you mean. She buys a lot of my yarn."
Peter glanced around the shop. It was filled with yarn. Balls, skeins, cones, a rainbow of colors lined the walls. He turned back to the woman. "I haven't seen her in years, and she got on a bus just now, before I could speak to her. Does she come in here often?"
"She comes to browse and visit about once a month."
"Does she live in Pasadena?"
"Dad!" Emery called from the doorway.
The shopkeeper shook her head. "I believe she's been living in Los Angeles, but she's moving away. She has a new job. A dream job, she says, out of town. She's thrilled because she's had to work two jobs here, to make ends meet. She didn't say where she's moving."
Peter turned away slowly.
"Dad, come look what April found." Emery dragged Peter out into the sunlight, toward the bus stop, where April and Claudia bent their heads over something.
"Look, Uncle Peter. Your lady lost this. It fell down the step when she got on the bus." April handed Peter a ball of fine, soft, cream colored yarn.
"Good grief," Morgan flatly intoned. "She rides the bus and works two jobs, yet she'll pay twenty-two-fifty for a ball of yarn? She's not very sensible, Peter."
"Who cares if she's sensible, Mom?" Claudia said. "This is romantic."
Emery read the yarn label. "Lace-weight kid mohair. What's that?"
"It's just like her," Claudia said. "It's like finding Cinderella's slipper."
It lay like a cloud in Peter's hand, soft and elegant, a whisper of reality. If not for this and the children's buoyant witness to Beth's departure, Peter might believe she'd never been here at all.
Now, in his cabin, Peter looked at the gold watch Tim had given him. He recalled when he'd given up, for a brief time, the possibility he'd ever see Beth again, on the day Emily had announced Abby's birth. Peter imagined Beth happily married and as far out of his reach as possible. It was then that Peter had told Tim about Beth's murder conviction.
This gold watch and all the other gifts Tim had sent in the past few years were reminders of the things Peter could buy for himself if he would get back onto his old career track. His brother was bribing him to behave normally. Tim thought Peter was hiding out, still grieving. Chasing dust devils, meaning Beth.
"Peter?" Tim waited on the other end of the line for an answer. He'd asked what was so important about Sunday dinner at the Lodge. "I'm talking about your future. The job in Sacramento—"
"Stop playing big brother, Tim. I'm nearly forty."
"That's what worries me. You're forty and you're on a permanent fishing trip."
"You're just jealous because Morgan won't let you do what I'm doing."
"Well, don't hock the watch for bait. Is dinner still on, for your birthday?"
"Dinner's still on." Peter slipped the watch onto his wrist.
"Morgan wants to know if you're dating," Tim said in a weary tone.
"Tell her yes."
"Tell her yes to shut her up, or tell her yes because it's true?"
"It's sort of true. I'm spending Tuesday with someone."
"Not the super model again?"
"She could be a super model."
"They could all be super models if you've been hiding out in the mountains long enough."
Peter hung up and looked at the watch again. Don't hock it for bait? He could hock this watch for a new truck. Where did Tim think he was going to wear it in Wilder? Here people would look on it as pomposity.
Leigh arrived, and Peter headed out. Leigh's tie had an interlocking key pattern. He gave Peter's blue cashmere turtleneck and beige herringbone-weave blazer an approving nod. "Who are we trying to impress?"
Peter didn't reply. Everything he wore tonight but his underwear had been more bribes from Tim. If they impressed Beth, it would be Tim impressing her. He got into his truck, and Leigh followed.
"I wonder if Beth finds this sort of gathering as difficult as I used to find dinners with my father," Leigh said moments later, as they crossed the parking lot at the Lodge. He followed Peter up the steps.
"She's been in tougher situations than this."
"Yes, but there's more to the tension here than a murder fifteen years ago, Peter. This family is unhappy in ways you and I don't know the half of. Outsiders never do."
Peter didn't plan to remain outside. He swung the near half of the double door wide and gestured for Leigh to enter.
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Copyright (c) 2001 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved